Summer reissue: Science experiments to teach children about the awful futility of life

To celebrate the imminent arrival of the interminable summer holidays, Thom Adams has some science experiments designed to teach your children about the cold and heartless reality of the terrible world we’re stuck in.

This story was first published on 8 November.

A while ago I wrote an article about my experience running a school holiday programme. Rather than wait for the sweet release of death to take me away, I left that organisation and forged a new path as an omni-science person. Essentially I get to be a jack of all sciences, and a master of none. Which sets me apart from like 90% of the people who contribute to this site, in so much as everything I write is a shallow skate across topics other people know a lot more about.

But the school holidays still haunt me to this day. Whenever I find my commute has suddenly gotten a lot quicker, and when I wonder if a plague has wiped out all secondary school students, I get flashbacks to having to entertain groups of middle to upper-class children with science. It’s surprisingly easy, as long as you get permission to set stuff on fire. Kids always love fire. But entertainment wasn’t enough. The kids had to learn something too. So that’s what I’m going to share with you now. A range of science experiments, as well as the lessons that they teach us.

Vinegar and Baking Soda

A classic. The greatest phone-in of science experiments. There’s an unwritten rule in the science community that if a science fair submission is a ‘volcano’ using vinegar and baking soda, you’re allowed to throw it into an actual volcano. There are a few interesting things about it, sure. You can blow up a balloon with the carbon dioxide the reaction produces, but you can also do that with your mouth and you don’t smell like old wine afterwards (in like, 70% of cases). The resulting salt you get from the reaction is also the flavouring for salt and vinegar chips, so if you’re feeling cheap you can just dunk your Ready Salteds in it. Of course, if you buy Ready Salted chips you’re dead inside already and everything probably tastes like ash to you.

So there are science lessons there, sure. But what about the bigger lessons?

Lesson: Sometimes two things, or people, can’t stay together without causing the mutual and irreversible destruction of both.

Photo: Getty Images

Elephant’s Toothpaste

Another classic, though generally not done as much at home. It’s the kind of experiment that a science educator does because not many people have heard of it, not because it’s difficult to do. You take hydrogen peroxide, a bottle of 3%  from the chemist will do, add some detergent, some food colouring, and then a bunch of yeast in warm water. It foams up like crazy and if you put it all in a bottle first it looks like you’re squeezing a tube of toothpaste. Elephant’s toothpaste.

As it turns out, hydrogen peroxide naturally degrades over time to turn into water and oxygen. Before then, it’s pretty reactive and fairly toxic. Interestingly enough, it’s also a naturally occurring chemical in your body for various reasons that are long and don’t explode. That means a lot of living organisms produce an enzyme called ‘peroxidase’ that helps to break it down. Like yeast for example. Nature’s most helpful fungus if you don’t count the “improved sense of self-worth and purpose mushroom” of Borneo.

The peroxidase causes the hydrogen peroxide to break down waaay faster, which is why you get the neat foaming and, if the percentage of peroxide is high enough, a bunch of steam coming off. The foam you get at the end is harmless, being mostly made up of water and bubbles of oxygen.

But what’s the lesson?

Lesson: Permanence is a lie. Time breaks us all into pieces unless something comes along to make it happen faster. Like yeast.

Oobleck or Slime

If you’ve ever had a kid go to daycare or kindergarten, you’ve probably seen the results of this particular experiment. It’s the kind of experiment that you tend to do with them too early and so you get disappointed at the lack of wonderment in their tiny maniacal faces. You take a bunch of cornflour and keep adding water until it reaches a kind of thick, paste-like, paste. When the combination is about right, it starts acting like what we in the science business call a ‘Non-Newtonian Fluid’. We call it that because it doesn’t follow Newton’s Law of Viscosity (that guy had a law for every damned thing including Newton’s Law of Not Staring At The Sun Because Holy Shit That Burns).

What that means is that when you hit the fluid suddenly, it acts like a solid. But when you move your hands gently through it, it stays as a liquid. Lots of fun. I recommend it. What’s happening is that when the molecules in the liquid get suddenly shocked, they sort of get hooked up on each other and don’t slide around. Once the shock has passed they can shift around a bit and go back to acting like a liquid. There are a bunch of things you can do with it, including filling a really long tray with the stuff and trying to run along it. It’s possible and while you do it you’re allowed to call yourself ‘Science Jesus’.

Lots to learn, that’s for sure. But can we go deeper?

Lesson: When faced with adversity, lock up and resist all changes. Don’t let Newton push you around.

Photo: Getty Images

Mentos and Diet Coke Eruption

By now you’ve realised that most of these experiments could have been found by Googling ‘Cool Science Experiments to do with your Kids’. Go for it, but I highly doubt they’ll have the same important life lessons that I’m dishing out here. Of course, if you really want to get into the content that confronts you with how stark and ultimately meaningless existence is then pop on over to Pinterest.

The Mentos and Coke reaction has been around for millennia. All you need is a roll of Mentos, and a bottle of soft drink. Any soft drink really. The fact that I call it the ‘Mentos and Diet Coke’ reaction is just very effective product placement on the part of the Coca Cola company.

Take four or five Mentos, stack them up, and drop them into the freshly opened bottle of soft drink. It’ll foam up like a motherfucker and make a geyser that’ll last for at least ten seconds or so. The more Mentos you drop, the bigger the bottle of drink, the higher the geyser gets.

This particular experiment is a little similar to the Elephants Toothpaste reaction. You’re taking a process that happens over a relatively long period of time and speeding it up by adding a catalyst. In this case, you’re making that soft drink go flat in a matter of a few seconds by forcing all of the carbon dioxide dissolved in the liquid to rapidly form bubbles and try to desperately escape the bottle.  This happens because there are tiny little indents on the surface of the Mentos that we in the science business call ‘nucleation sites’. At those nucleation sites it takes less energy for the bubbles to form and there are thousands of those sites on each Mentos. So the mints sink to the bottom making thousands of bubbles form, until eventually you’ve got a whole ejaculation of froth just streaming out of the top of that bottle. I’m going to suggest you reword that when you explain it to your kid though.

This last experiment makes a mess, but it’s a great use for those mixers you had on the top shelf of your cupboard. Because let’s face it. You’re never going to have a cocktail party until your kid leaves home. Which they might do more successfully with a solid understanding of science. But also the life lessons that it brings. Like this one.

Lesson: Excitement is fleeting, and once it’s gone you’ll feel nothing but saccharine sweet flatness.

There you have it. Four science experiments to excite and engage the young mind with the wonders of the world, coupled with four important life lessons to rapidly drag them back down and tether them to a sepia-toned reality where dreams become orphans.

But don’t forget, the most important thing is to have fun.

Thom Adams is a science educator and parent-time comedian. A gigantic nature and politics geek, he’s instilling the virtues of making accurate animal sounds in his daughter who insist on calling giraffes cows to mess with him.

Follow the Spinoff Parents on Facebook and Twitter.

This content is entirely funded by Flick, New Zealand’s fairest power deal. In the past year, their customers saved $320 on average, which pays for a cheeky bottle of wine in the trolley almost every shop. Please support us by switching to them right now!

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.